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Jane Vandenburgh Headshot

How I Learned to Read

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Early reader? Let's just say that had the word had currency in the L.A. of the Fifties, I'd have been the girl with the big dictionary on her lap trying to find "dyslexia." Since I couldn't read it'd never have occurred to me that I'd become a writer. Seriously? I wanted to get married and have babies, something so mysteriously shaming I'd have admitted it to nobody.

But I was good at math and science, pouring over illustrations in Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia to see how everything works. Sociable, sent out of the library for talking, never got in trouble at home.

We don't go by that, is what my mom often told me.

What we went by derived somehow from reading. My parents read, my older brother too but I'd stare at the dark columns of dense text in The New Yorker as exhaustion closed my eyes. Since I'd never catch up, I learned the trick of listening.

Which was interesting, because as a family we were a Cheever-like machine of advanced alcoholic dysfunction. My mother and my father each imagined themselves writers, this placing them at certain windows staring out while writing captions for their hypothetical cartoons. Gifted mimics, both hyper-articulate in their condemnation of pretty much the entire American enterprise. But they never wrote, I noticed, as they were too busy talking.

Among the myriad reasons we didn't fit in was our divergence from the vernacular in how we spoke. My grandmothers were both English teachers so we had Standard American Usage as our first idiom -- this correctness of ours got my brothers and me mocked at school.

They say we're snotty, that we think we're bettern everybody else, I complained to my mom who answered, Well of course we do.

I read the spines of their books Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe, The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill, titles that held unimaginably enticing clues to some secret place of such longing and desire it pulled me toward it as sex would one day do. Reading always equated to me with that exact feeling of a tactile intimacy with which I was, so far, personally unacquainted.

That I didn't read horse books made me inadequate as a small female person. There was a book about some boy's dead deer but I was too cringey to finish it. Reading happened elsewhere, I guessed, maybe in Berkeley, where babies came from? Cal was where both our parents and grandparents had gone away to go to school. That faraway town, where I'd been born, was such a fairytale place I thought you went there to find the one who'd marry you.

It all began to make better sense as soon as I got that our architect father was not only this glamorous, intensely heterosexual Don Draper-type dad but also some variety of not particularly closeted queer man who kept being arrested in gay bars. And we were all queer, our mother insisted, this deriving from such entwining mysteries as sex and reading and Berkeley.

My first picture book was Madeleine, the library book my mom cut up and Scotch-taped to the walls of my room. Its story told of the pure reckless joy of lawlessness, which was a little girl's most true nature. You could get away with anything, my mother instructed, but you needed to be as brave as she and my father were. They seemed not only brave, they were adept at all levels of disguise, the main one being their fake middle-class respectability. Though we might resemble some nice white family, we'd remain forever on the side of the offenders.

I began to read exactly as I began to actually write, while standing inside the Braille-like place of the tactile story, as if on the other side of the page. It happened suddenly when I was a grad student in creative writing at San Francisco State. I'd been assigned a book by William Faulkner, who had always before been too hard for me. My professor was Michael Krasny.

I was working at an art-film moviehouse, couldn't afford a coat, but was buying books because this was now expected of me. Wright Morris told us in a seminar that the act of buying books was the only sacrament in the religion in which we hoped to become communicants, so if we were serious as writers we'd tithe.

This relationship - me to book - is exactly as symbiotic now as what I felt that afternoon, so organically a part of me I can exactly mark the weather of my life by the good books I've read, as these exist as sundering psychic events, each title as intrinsic as the rings of a cut-down tree.

I got it that day, how he'd taken our language, one tongue, and used it to make all these different, distinctly American voices who echo one another as they will in a real family. And I became a Bundren then and went to sit at the grown-up table. Not only could I read, I was given voice and could now say aloud why Addy has no words aside from those four in the title.

That's his act of genius: it's in his tricking us into saying the words that Faulkner gets us all to climb in and lie down in her half-built coffin.